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James E. Johnson (Jim)

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James E. Johnson (Jim)

Place of birth: St. Paul, MN

Jim was born in 1929 in St. Paul, MN, where he grew up in a small house on the East Side with his mother Corona, father Edwin and sister Maxine.  After working as an aviation mechanic first for the Air Force and then on the West Coast at Boeing, Jim brought his machining skills to Park Tool of St. Paul, where he invented many bicycle tools still in use today, including the first standing bicycle repair rack, whose patent was sold to Schwinn.

Jim had a lifelong passion for scouting, becoming involved with the Beaver Valley Boy Scout Camp on the St. Croix River early in its inception and staying active as an adult volunteer and member of the board for most of his life. He helped to build the original cabin, and loved to tell stories about the challenges of constructing the massive stone fireplace with nothing but brain and brawn.

Jim met the love of his life, Julianne Norwall (1938-2008), in 1981. Together, they built a custom house on 18 acres he’d purchased earlier in the township of Marine-on-St.-Croix, Minnesota. And built means they built it themselves–hammer and nail. Although not a trained architect, Jim designed the house himself, going through many iterations and lovingly creating a scale model of each. When it came time to put plans in place, the architect they hired had only small corrections. Jim’s natural engineering brain had figured it out without formal training.

And this was the essence of Jim. Although he had only a high-school education, there was nothing he couldn’t figure out. His interests were wide and varied, and included his beloved Austin-Healy (purchased new in the 50s and still drivable into the early 2000s after a loving restoration) and cars in general. He was an amazing driver, relishing the BMW he purchased late in life, especially seeing “what it could do.” He was also a gifted photographer, woodworker, and craftsman of all sorts. The house in Marine was full of Jim’s creations, ranging from gorgeous oak occasional tables with natural edges from fallen trees on the property to quirky coat racks made from glass insulators they’d picked up off the nearby train tracks.

No tribute to Jim would be complete without mentioning what a loving husband he was. He thought Julie hung the moon, and that there was nothing she couldn’t do. One day in White Bear Lake, they passed an art store with an ad for a watercolor class. Jim knew that Julie had always wanted to be an artist. “You need to take this class,” he told her. And when she demurred, he insisted, knowing it was important to her soul. She did take the class, and many others, and became quite a talented artist. Jim’s pride in her work was enormous, and creating a studio for her in the house was a priority, as was figuring out ways to display her paintings on every wall of their house.

Julie shared Jim’s love of cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing and travel. They loved to visit the Rocky Mountains, often connecting with old friends for epic backpacking trips. They also took their bikes to Scotland on two different occasions, packing them in cardboard boxes and reassembling in the airport. On one trip, they met a fellow cyclist and got to chatting. The subject of bike tools came up, and of course Jim’s contribution to cycling maintenance. “Park Tools?” said the Scotsman as he pulled something from his bag, “I LOVE Park Tools!” And there, in the Scottish Highlands, was a well-thumbed catalog featuring some of Jim’s inventions.

Jim had no children of his own, but loved his niece Barbara and her children Shaun and Kelly, and Julie’s children, Charles and Ann. He was a quiet presence, kind and dependable, and interested in all their lives. After Julie passed away in 2008, he continued to be a part of the Betz clan, often kayaking or cycling with Roger, Julie’s ex-husband (and a close friend). And no holiday or birthday was complete without “Grandpa Jim,” who gifted everyone with handmade oak benches or just the right book.

Funeral Notice Detail

Memorial services will be held at the Marine-on-St.-Croix Town Hall on Sunday, February 19, 2017, visitation at 1 pm, services at 2 pm. In lieu of flowers, donations preferred to Standing Cedars Land Trust (

A Memorial Service will be held at

Marine-on-St.-Croix Town Hall

Main Street

Marine-on-St.-Croix , MN 55047

On: Feb 19, 2017 — At: 1:00 PM

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